May 8, 2014

James J. McAlester: Pioneer Freemason

By. T.S. Akers

Oklahoma has two great Masonic cities.  One had dreams of being the state capital and it would ultimately serve in a similar capacity as it became home to the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of the State of Oklahoma.  The vestiges of Freemasonry are still very evident in Guthrie, ranging from the old Masonic Children’s Home to the imposing Scottish Rite Temple perched atop what was to be Capitol Hill at the end of Oklahoma Avenue.  The other city was born of a Freemason and though many of her Masonic halls are now fading memories, such as Mount Moriah, McAlester is still one of the great Masonic cities of Oklahoma.

McAlester is named for the famed merchant of Indian Territory James J. McAlester, who was immortalized by Charles Portis in his novel True Grit.[i]  McAlester was born in Sebastian County, Arkansas on October 1, 1842.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, McAlester volunteered for service in the Confederate Army, rising to the rank of Captain.[ii]  McAlester was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862 and escorted the body of the Late General Benjamin McCulloch to Fort Smith.[iii]

 James J. McAlester
(Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society) 

McAlester took up residence in Fort Smith after the Civil War, boarding with an engineer by the name of Oliver Weldon who had surveyed the Indian Territory.  Armed with Weldon’s memorandum book that noted the coal outcrops at the crossroads of the Texas and California Roads, McAlester set out for Indian Territory.[iv]  Serving as a teamster, McAlester was helping transport a saw-mill to Fort Sill.  In about 1868, McAlester became a salesman for the firm of Reynolds and Hannaford; ultimately buying out his partners.[v]  It was in 1869 that McAlester opened his general store, in a tent, at “The Crossroads.”[vi]  

A few years later in 1872, McAlester married Rebecca Burney, sister of future Chickasaw Governor Ben Burney, which gave McAlester full citizenship in the Chickasaw Nation as well as rights in the Choctaw Nation.[vii]  This allowed McAlester to stake a claim in the coal deposits at “The Crossroads.”[viii]  Owing to the quality of the coal in the area, which McAlester had a controlling interest in, the MKT Railroad established a line through what was then Tobucksy County.  This would help the city of McAlester to flourish.[ix]  Officials of the MKT Railroad gave the railway stop at the “The Crossroads” the name McAlester.[x]

McAlester accepted his first political appointment as a Democrat in 1893 as United States Marshal having jurisdiction over matters with the Choctaw Nation, a post he would hold until 1897.[xi]  McAlester sold his mercantile to another area Mason, William Busby, in 1904.[xii]  It was during this period that McAlester was engaged in banking.  In 1901, McAlester appeared in the City Directory of Denison, Texas, as Vice President of the National Bank of Denison.[xiii]  By 1905, McAlester was serving as President of the Bank of McAlester.[xiv]  McAlester’s banking interests secured him a seat on the Corporation Commission after Statehood for a term from 1907 to 1911.[xv]  McAlester left the Corporation Commission to serve as the second Lieutenant Governor under Governor Lee Cruce.  McAlester was acting Governor in the absence of Cruce on at least one occasion, as evidenced by his issuing a pardon in 1915 in the case of Sibenaler v State.[xvi]

For all that McAlester did to see that the city that bore his name flourished; he was an equal proponent of Freemasonry.  Records indicate that McAlester affiliated with Muscogee (Eufaula) Lodge No. 1 in December of 1876, serving as Junior Warden of that Lodge in 1877.[xvii]  McAlester Lodge No. 9 was chartered by the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory on September 5, 1877.[xviii]  McAlester then affiliated with Lodge No. 9 in 1878.[xix]

McAlester would go on to be a charter member of two Masonic bodies in Southeastern Oklahoma.  In 1878, McAlester along with a number of other Companions petitioned for a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons and a charter was granted to Indian Chapter No. 1 in August of 1880.[xx]  McAlester was also one of the Sir Knights who petitioned for a Commandery of Knights Templar in 1894.[xxi]  

When the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Indian Territory was formed in 1890, McAlester was elected the first Grand Treasurer.[xxii]  McAlester also served as first Grand Treasurer of the Grand Commandery Knights Templar of Indian Territory in 1895.[xxiii]  As further evidence of his financial prowess, McAlester also saw service as Grand Treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory from 1878 to 1879 and 1889 to 1899.[xxiv]

J.J. McAlester in Templar uniform with Frank Smith, Past Grand Commander of Indian Territory
(Unknown Source)

James J. McAlester laid down the working tools of life on September 21, 1920, in the city that bore his name.[xxv]  As a testament to his life, the Oklahoman noted the following on McAlester’s death:
Followed probably by the largest concourse of mourners ever witnessed in this city, the remains of Col. J.J. McAlester were buried today in the Masonic cemetery here. Funeral services were conducted at the residence and were heard by nearly 2,000 people.
Out of respect for the memory of Colonel McAlester and the fact that he was the founder of this city, business and industrial life of the city was at a standstill from 2 until 4 o'clock this afternoon.
Preceding the funeral at the home, the Kadosh funeral rites were exemplified at the Masonic temple at midnight. In the procession behind the funeral bier on its way to the cemetery were the allied Masonic bodies, in which Colonel McAlester had been active, the confederate veterans in uniform, the allied civic organizations, 200 members of the chamber of commerce, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other women's organizations.[xxvi]

The hand of James J. McAlester can still be seen across the city of McAlester today, from the buildings that bore his name to the Masonic halls he once graced, McAlester lives on in the city he helped establish.

[i]  “History of McAlester.” McAlester, OK, accessed May 7, 2014,
[ii]  LaRadius Allen, “McAlester, James Jackson (1842-1920),” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, accessed May 7, 2014,
[iii]  Clyde Wooldridge, McAlester: The Capital of Little Dixie : A History of McAlester, Krebs and South McAlester (Rich Hill, MO: Bell Books, 2001), 8-9.
[iv]  Allen.
[v]  Wooldridge, 8-9.
[vi]  Jeanne LeFlore, “McAlester History,” McAlester News-Capital, last modified July 23, 2013,
[vii]  Allen.
[viii]  Ibid.
[ix]  Wooldridge, 8-9.
[x]  Paul Nesbitt, “J.J. McAlester,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 11, no. 2 (1933): 758-764.
[xi]  “Necrology,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 5, no. 3 (1927): 352.
[xii]  Wooldridge, 69.
[xiii]  “James Jackson McAlester,” Grayson County TXGenWeb, accessed May 7, 2014,
[xiv]  Wooldridge, 80.
[xv]  “Necrology.”
[xvi]  “James Jackson McAlester,” Grayson County TXGenWeb.
[xvii]  “McAlester, James Jackson” (member profile, Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of the State of Oklahoma AF&AM).
[xviii]  Oklahoma Masonic Centennial Lodges 1874-1974 (Oklahoma: Oklahoma Lodge of Research, 1974), 9.
[xix]  “McAlester, James Jackson” (member profile).
[xx]  Norman E. Angel, Kenneth S. Adams, and William A. Hensley, History of the Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons of Oklahoma (Oklahoma: 1964), 2-3.
[xxi]  “McAlester Commandery No. 3” (charter, Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States of America, August 29, 1895).
[xxii]  Angel, 12.
[xxiii]  Grand Commandery Knights Templar of Oklahoma, Proceedings of the 118th Annual Conclave (Oklahoma:  2013).
[xxiv]  “McAlester, James Jackson” (member profile).
[xxv]  Allen.
[xxvi]  “Capt. James Jackson McAlester,” Find A Grave, accessed May 7, 2014,

No comments:

Post a Comment